Tison dismounts and leaves the black mare, on which he has just covered a mile of hard-packed dirt, at the livery stable on the south side of Main Street across from the Irishman’s shoe shop. The bustling little railroad town parts for its acknowledged leader, and he strides with his recognizable, hitched but confident, gait east down Main, toward his warehouse and the Mobile & Ohio depot, where there is money to be made.
Aged 60 years and 28 days, Colonel Tison rules Baldwyn. Despite constant pain from a left leg that has never been the same after the devastating injury he suffered at the Battle of Franklin, and despite all the maneuvering that was required to keep him and his family afloat and prosperous through Reconstruction, and despite this latest unsavory business with his brother Houston’s girl and that clerk boy of McDonald’s, William Henry Haywood Tison had managed to climb to the top rung and stay there. It isn’t 1845 anymore, and “Bill” Tison isn’t making saddles in old Carrollville these days. Farmer, merchant, statesmen, veteran – Col. W.H.H. Tison is the current Speaker of the House in Mississippi, and frankly, a run for governor is not out of the question. A history as a decorated and battle-hardened confederate can take a man in Mississippi a long way in 1882, especially one who has a way with words to begin with. Has it really been thirty years since he was editor of the Eastport Republican?
There’s nothing like rousing words to accomplish a man’s goals, the colonel had always thought. In the early days of Tishomingo County, a patriotic oration on the 4th of July from Bill Tison was as regular and certain as the annual barbeque held in Carrollville, the county’s first settlement, and always appreciated. In fact, the Independence Day band of 1853 responded to a particularly boisterous Tison address, in which he recounted American wartime victories over England and Mexico, by spontaneously striking up “Old Dan Tucker” and playing it, not once, but repetitively until the budding politician finally stepped down from the bandstand and into the cheering crowd of his contemporaries. Yet it was his eloquence with the printed word as editor of the Eastport Reporter newspaper in the early 1850’s to which he generally pointed as the thing that drew the attention of a young Sarah Selina Walker. Sarah, a sister to the county sheriff (and thirteen other siblings), had newly arrived from Jackson County, Alabama, and she and William were married on April 21st, 1853. In all, they had five children – Eliza Sale, Nancy, Richard, Rebel Quitman, and James Henry – between 1855 and 1866.
Today, force of will alone moves the colonel’s leg in the low, circular motion that’s left to him, and each cold step lands with pain. The impotent December sun hangs there in the morning sky at the end of Main Street, above the Home Hotel and the depot and the M&O. If the irony was not so bitter, the colonel would laugh at how the “easy life” had approached Baldwyn like a freight train twenty-two years ago. The joke is: “It was a freight train.” Never has optimism faded, been crushed, in a town so quickly or decisively. Standing near the crest of the hill at the crossing of Front Street, Col. Tison can almost hear 1860 and that first train whistle blowing, can almost smell the smoke of the engine that ground to a halt, right there, by the cotton platform. Then, the war started, within three months, and absolutely nothing, railroad or no railroad, has been easy since.
Over the last twenty years, tragedy became the rule rather than the exception for most of the Baldwyn families who had been prominent before the war. The bloody battles from 1861 to 1865 claimed sons and fathers from virtually every household in town, and while the Colonel would never publically admit that the cause he had promoted was not a just one, the once-zealous Methodist surely knew that it was not, and he knew, too, that it was the pro-slavery stance of his Mississippi delegation, and their subsequent walk-out from the 1860 Democratic National Convention, as much as anything, that led to the election of the Republican Lincoln and the war of pride that cost the lives of brothers and cousins and friends. In spite of it all, somehow, Tison had held on to his dry goods business, and after Reconstruction ended, his politician-colonel persona also reemerged and with considerable success, but even the mighty Tisons knew pain and loss.
For Tison’s wife Sarah, it was Richard’s death at the age of 5 in July of 1865, their first boy, that would always be the low point of her life. Richard died in her arms in Monroe County, where the family was trying to survive, fatherless, awaiting the return of the colonel, who was still recovering from the injuries he suffered in Franklin.
Sarah’s grip had been shaken already in December of 1864, just seven months before the loss of Richard, when she had received a false report from the war front. She was informed, not that William had been injured, but that he had in fact died at the Battle of Franklin. As she learned later, had it not been for the indomitable survival instinct of her husband, this pioneer who with Lowry and Belsher and Clayton and Walker pulled up Carrollville and then Baldwyn out of the Chickasaw wilderness, that report would certainly have been true.
As a battle raged on November 30, 1864, near Franklin, Tennessee, some 20 miles south of Nashville, where 6,000 confederates died, repulsed in ordered charge after charge into superior Union forces, a Yankee mini ball struck the tip of a sword William Tison carried, a blade he had captured from a Union officer earlier in the war. The sword tip and ball both gashed into the colonel’s left leg, and he fell immobile on the battlefield. The severity of the wound and the loss of blood forced his company to abandon their leader there in the Franklin field, where the South lost 54 other regimental commanders and fourteen generals. He was truly “left for dead” and reported as such by his own men, but he did not die. The man who had risen from the ground as a frontier saddler to become a leader in the Mississippi Democratic party and an already commended officer, wounded and cited for bravery in Atlanta, refused to give up the ghost there in Tennessee or to lose his leg or to not walk again.
Having reached the crest of Town Hill now, where the dirt of Main and Front Streets intersect, the colonel looks first south to the depot, that beehive with cotton as honey, where he and Houston’s son Glen had pulled their pistols on the boy Thursday, and then north to Baldwyn’s engineering marvel, the railroad engine turntable. He believes – no, he knows – the entirety of his future lies here before him. Surely it does. He pivots on the leg, wincing only slightly, and moves north up Front towards his warehouse, past the still darkened doorway of McDonald & Co., the December wind in his face.
To be continued …